Barriers to learning for Autistic people and how you can help

Autistic people process information differently than non-Autistic people. This can cause barriers for them in many environments. I have been thinking about how this works in classroom learning environments, so I  made up a couple of images that I hope will help people think about this and understand how difficult school (and other places) are for Autistic people to navigate.

Following are the images, a full version of the text in the images is below each one. The brain image I used wassourced on

Please click here for access to the downloadable PDFs.



Barriers to learning for Autistic people in classroom settings

I hear:
the sound of my pencil scratching on paper,
people moving,
people writing,
people breathing,
people opening pencil cases,
people chewing,
clocks ticking
noises from outside the classroom,
noises from the classroom next door,
students talking,
teachers talking,
teachers talking lots of words all at once,
fans spinning, heaters blowing,
other people laughing- sometimes at me,
and I can’t selectively filter what I hear to hone in on what you think I should be attending to

I feel: 
my clothes,
my shoes,
the rough desk,
the hard chair,
the contrast of textures on my desk- book,
papers, pens, pencils,
small variations in temperature,
bumps of other students on my body as we move around
my hungry tummy and full bladder
and I can’t simply ignore things that I feel that bother me

I see: 
art work,
things on desks and shelves,
people moving around,
flickering of fluorescent lighting,
contrast between light and shadow,
what is happening through windows and open doors,
and I find it very difficult to concentrate on just one thing when all these other things are present

I smell:
cleaning products,
other peoples food,
other peoples perfume,
other peoples deodorant,
other peoples hair products,
other peoples make up,
markers, glue, paint, paper, pencil shavings
and these things can make me feel physically ill

You expect me to: 
sit still, be quiet, stay “on task”, concentrate, be polite, speak when spoken to, make eye contact, not stim, only eat drink and use the bathroom when you say I can, be engaged all day with minimal breaks, use socially appropriate words and gestures, get the answers right, laugh at jokes, not cry or look upset, fit in, figure out what you expect of me when you don’t explain it in a way I understand, play the way the other kids play, look normal, be neat
and I am already overwhelmed trying to process what I hear, see, smell and feel

how to help image


You can help Autistic students learn by
Providing audio support:
*reducing the overall noise from machinery and appliances in the classroom and school
*asking other students to be considerate with volume
*providing ear defenders
*providing opportunities for students to listen to music via headphones if they find it helpful
*and always asking the student what accommodations they would like provided to help with audio overload

Providing tactile support:
*allow students to remove shoes and outer layers of clothing if they want to
*provide alternatives to traditional table and chair learning stations
*ensure the learning station is uncluttered and give students a choice of implements to use for learning activities
*keep the classroom environment at a steady temperature as much as possible
*ask students to be aware of personal space and teach them how to move around considerately
*provide frequent bathroom and snack breaks
*and always asking the student what accommodations they would like provided to help with tactile overload
Providing visual support:
*keeping the classroom environment simple and uncluttered with resources not in use away in cupboards/ drawers and minimal visual distraction
*keep the room well lit by light sources that do not flash, flicker or strobe
*provide sunglasses for use in the class room
*shut doors when possible
*minimise movement of people walking around when students are expected to be concentrating
*and always asking the student what accommodations they would like provided to help with visual overload

Minimising smells:
*find cleaning products that do not have a strong smell
*make sure rooms are well ventilated
*ask people to be considerate of others when applying products to their bodies
*use equipment that does not have a strong smell
*do not expect a student who has smell sensitivities to sit close to other people if they are uncomfortable doing so
*and always asking the student what accommodations they would like provided to help with smell overload

Adjusting your expectations:
Making changes to the physical environment will help, but getting to know your student, asking them what help they need and really listening to them is what will make the most difference. Autistic students can benefit from moving around, fidgeting and doodling while engaged in learning tasks. Accommodation like a visual schedule and extra lead time before transitions can also be helpful.  And above all always ask the student what accommodations they would like provided.

Autistic students are not the only ones who can experience sensory processing challenges. Providing these kinds of supports in your classroom will benefit many, if not all, students.

15 thoughts on “Barriers to learning for Autistic people and how you can help

  1. You are spot on. All these things I am trying to explain to my son’s teacher every year and every new year comes with its own challenges.
    You compiled everything so comprehensively.
    Thanks very much, taking this to my son’s teacher this week after school start. He is going to year 6

  2. Wow this list is amazing everything I try to tell my daughters teachers every year now in 5th grade but when they won’t accept her ASD diagnosis because they don’t see the Autism. Every year is a battle and now the social challenges frustrating and upsetting bc they don’t understand the whole child just the kid that does everything to get through all these things listed in her day.

  3. This is an excellent visual for all involved in educating…Education comes in many forms, i.e. Family, friends, school teachers, hobby teachers and so on… thank you for this comprehensive list…

  4. Gosh I WISH it were possible to put this across to schools and LEAs. The children are generally viewed as an inconvenience in mainstream and left to flounder and fail. It’s so destructive of young lives

    1. Hi Sharon, the strategies in these images are relevant for younger kids as well as school aged ones. I wonder if you are asking more specifically for ways to figure out what your non-speaking child needs and wants? If that is the case my first thought is to just start making changes based on the things in the second graphic here and watch to see how they respond and if they seem more comfortable/content. I’d also recommend having a look at the Respectfully Connected blog, and the writing of Amy Sequenzia and Emma Zurcher Long (both non-speaking autistics).

  5. I just wanted to say thank you for this, Michelle. I’ll be handing this to my son’s teacher and headteacher. It’s so effective for being simply presented. We are suffering this year with one teacher and it’s completely changed his attitude towards his education. I’ll be keeping this for future years.

    1. Hi Sally. I’m sorry to hear things aren’t great this year. It only takes one teacher not getting it to make a mess of things for our kids at school. I hope sharing this information helps. Maybe have a look on my infographic resources page too (link is at the top of the page) for my Tips for Teachers graphic in case there is something there that would help as well.

  6. Wow!!! This article really came in handy…. Learning has always been a challenge as dreads going to school. Most times she is being neglected cause she can’t meet up with her peers. But she does well in her homework cause she is patiently monitored.

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